On Dominicans, Purpose and Truth

Semi-baked Series: Episode 1

In Salamanca’s Convento de San Esteban, one can find a description of what is termed the “characteristic feature of the Dominican lifestyle”. Knowing next to nothing about these various Catholic Orders and curious to know more, I found myself particularly struck by the discovery that this lifestyle consists of, among things, the “constant search for Truth and Good.” 

Constant search for Truth and Good. This sentiment placed me in a realm of reflection on purpose, having been reminded that truth – if it is, after all, to be considered an essential component of one’s life – could itself be a purpose. Well, that’s interesting, but toward what ends should one devote oneself to truth? Truth and Good, I would argue, are axiomatically signals of “correctness” and lay the very foundation for “righteousness”. He or she that discovers “truth” has, then, by definition discovered purpose for it sets in place a system of signals under which our actions should be guided and directed. “Of course,” I though to myself, “truth can be purpose”. So, to the extent that anyone feels they should have a purpose, the search for truth can be seen as an endeavor that, well, points us towards one very specific and important purpose: living an existence that is right.  

In the case of these curious Dominicans, however, purpose is more than just the guidance and direction derived from the discovery of truth: it entails the constant search for truth (and, more precisely, a truth that reveals to us the goodness of life that we should seek to acquire, emulate and bring into our daily existence). Curiously, under such a lifestyle, our purpose becomes a lifelong search for the very thing that we believe gives us purpose: truth.

We seem now to enter into what feels a bit like a paradox. It’s not about eating the cake, it’s about baking the cake. It’s not about having money, it’s about the process of earning money. What’s the point? Aren’t we just Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill? What kind of life is it to constantly be seeking something we never stop looking for? What’s the purpose? The constant search for truth. Oh, OK, and why are we searching for truth? So we can find our purpose.

As tautological as this seems, further reflection reminds me of my own personal values of modesty and humility – things I have to assume that any good devout Dominican would extol as a heavenly virtues. Cast in this light, a never-ending search for truth as a purpose towards a purpose can be made more sensical. I would imagine it being highly immodest to proclaim, definitively, that one has discovered the truth (thus ending the search that has instilled purpose in you up to that point). How can you be so sure of your version of truth, after all, when there are so many other competing versions out there (many coming from people who are pretty darn wise in their own right)? Faced with these counter-arguments it is incumbent upon us to continually engage them and subject our own version of the truth to a sort of hypothesis-testing process, wherein we allow this truth to be repeatedly verified. In turn, one must, moreover, honor this personal truth by moving past discovery and onto the more difficult task of implementation. These are both things that would support a prolonged search for truth – even in the wake of having discovered it.

But there is, I would argue, a more profound reason for why the search for truth never ends: because we and our worlds constantly change. This is no more relevant than at present, when the speed of the world seems to be moving at an accelerating rate, forcing us to constantly reinterpret our place and identity within it. Put simply: we are constantly changing, meaning the truth and our interpretation of it is likely to constantly change as well. While we are subject to disliking change and the uncertainty that it unleashes, it is – as any good Taoist would observe – foolish to fight against this invariable constant. And while many of us may seem content to place ourselves in a state resistant to change, I would argue that this fosters a state of arrested development that is anathema to the very purpose of life embodied by Dominicans in their adopted lifestyle.

And although their quests for truth were centered on their devotion to God, I would again emphasize that the spirt of this constant search for truth remains relevant to even the most secular among us. In this sentiment I am reminded of one of my favorite poems, which comes to us from Goethe’s Sehlige Sehnsucht (which I repeat here in German with my own translation to seem pretentious): 

Und so lang du das nicht hast (and as long as you don’t have this:)
Dieses: Stirb und Werde!
(death and becoming)
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
(you are only a dreary guest)
Auf den dunklen Erde
(upon a dark Earth)

I see this poem as speaking to the heart of what causes me to find such depth in the Dominican lifestyle’s constant search for truth. In Goethe’s estimation, it is essentially human to go through a continuous process of death and rebirth. It is incumbent upon each of us given the gift of life to seek to do honor to this gift (as well as the faculties and spirit of thought and creativity) by crafting ourselves into better versions of ourselves. We must improve upon our shortcomings through education, hard work and reflection so that we may make the most of our numerous blessings and become “better” members of our communities (however so defined). We will change and Goethe here recognizes the importance of this mission by noting that any human who fails to go through it has essentially failed as a human. What is important in the Dominican sense is that this process never ends because we are not Gods and will always have further room for growth (least of which is a result of our worlds around us invariably changing).

The element of truth comes into this equation because we cannot be certain of who we should become in the future. While it is important for us to practice self-love and to be happy with who we are, it is immodest to consider oneself a finished product and an affront to the gifts of life and agency. But if we are to change, we must have some notion of what we should become. Such outcomes are normative in nature and difficult to clearly define, making a search for truth the only pathway towards clarifying this confusion. After all, so many do not struggle with the idea that we should have a purpose – we accept it as almost self-evident. We struggle with what this purpose should be. The means for resolving this ambiguity is truth, but truth requires a search of its own. And just when we seem to grasp it, our world’s change and the vision of that truth seems to require new formulation or revalidation. This is the constant search for truth: Goethe’s Stirb und Werde acted out in the plays of our lives. It requires, as a first step, honesty with oneself and critical self-reflection. When one’s truth seems to stand on shaky grounds, it requires the courage to re-engage with the further search for truth.

In closing, I am reminded of the Jewish lesson of Adam, the first man, and the telling of his being made out of earth. As retold to me by my dear friend Miles, the lesson here in humans being formed from earth is one of potential. The earth possesses the potential to bear fruit; but, it is not certain that it will do so naturally. If we cultivate this soil, however, we can better ensure that the earth will bring forth a bountiful harvest. From this, the lesson becomes clear: the potential inherent in all humans can only be realized if they cultivate themselves. This is the constant search for truth – the search for who we should become and how we should develop. It is the honor we bestow upon the gift of life.